Expert insights: What are three essential qualities of the workforce of the future?

November 2019

As the construction industry evolves, industry leaders share their takes on how the workforce will respond.


Tam Nguyen
Global Head of Sustainability,
Bechtel


David Wilson
Chief Innovation Officer,
Bechtel

With the increasing adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies in the workplace, tomorrow’s engineering, procurement, and construction workforce will be leaner, greener, smarter, and more agile. The workforce of the future will have the following three essential qualities.

Adaptability. Workers will be receptive to change, able to quickly adopt better methods, and adept at doing more with a smaller environmental footprint. In recent years, the rate of drone adoption has significantly increased across the industry;1 rapidly adopting other new technologies will continue to be necessary.

Digital proficiency. The construction workforce will be capable of adopting, understanding, troubleshooting, and developing new digital workflows and solutions, as well as managing data more securely, efficiently, and effectively. The future worker will no longer sort through piles of paper drawings and instructions. Instead, they will navigate and create instructions using AI-enhanced wearables, smart devices, and workstations.

Machine mastery. Workers will have the ability to augment their own work using bots, robots, autonomous vehicles, machine control, and neural interfaces. Repetitive activities, such as data processing, material transport, and rebar tying will be performed by cobots—collaborative robots. These cobots will assist workers who prompt, direct, and oversee the work.

A workforce with these skills will use fewer physical and natural resources to deliver safer, quality products more quickly.



Romilly Madew
CEO, Infrastructure Australia

Australia faces a period of unprecedented uncertainty spurred by changing demographics, rapid technological advancement, and shifting consumer demands. These trends will create a workforce of the future that looks different in three crucial ways.

More women. The Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019 found Australia’s rates of workforce participation are high and stable.2 However, participation rates for women—64 percent—remain lower than those for men—75 percent—and lower still than several other countries. The construction industry, the nation’s third-largest employer, currently maintains the lowest level of female workplace participation of all industries.

However, women’s representation in the workforce is growing, and this upward trajectory is expected to continue. Such increased participation could help relieve the construction industry’s current labor and skills shortages.

More senior—and senior-care—workers. The 2019 audit revealed that Australians are living and working longer. The number of workers over the age of 55 has increased significantly and is expected to continue rising. By 2042, the number of Australians over the age of 85 is expected to double, which will place increased pressure on social services and infrastructure, particularly the health and senior-care sectors.

More nontraditional work arrangements. Rapid technological change and shifting consumer demands continue to disrupt existing markets. Increasing demand on the past decade’s sharing markets, such as ridesharing and skillsharing, can help meet future infrastructure challenges, including delivering quality transport to the outer suburbs of growing cities. While independent contractors now make up around 12 percent of Australia’s workforce, this number is likely to increase alongside these growing labor categories.



Michael Della Rocca
Partner, Philadelphia
McKinsey & Company

Across the construction ecosystem, the workforce of the future will be more digitally literate, diverse, and decentralized.

Digital literacy. Construction has reemerged, after generations of low productivity, at the start of a digital transformation. The sector is using virtual-reality tools, AI-based design algorithms, remote operation of construction equipment, digital–site safety tools, and a host of other technologies to transform its way of building. The future workforce will be trained and knowledgeable in such digital applications, and the most competitive talent will choose employers using these digital technologies across the value chain.

Diversity. Technology will open doors for a more diverse workforce equipped to contribute in a fundamentally different construction environment. Consider that it could be commonplace to see a young worker use an iPad to operate a bulldozer potentially hundreds of miles away at a future construction site. Even more innovative: a 24/7 workforce deploying advanced technologies to construct a commercial building module in a manufacturing environment.

The latter is happening now, but not at scale. As the industry successfully deploys technology, the traditional, hands-on, physically demanding construction roles—often filled by workers in hard hats—will dwindle, making room for more diverse workers. These workers will apply different skills, harness new platforms and tools, and work more flexible schedules as the construction ecosystem evolves.

Decentralization. Design, project management, and the supply chain will be managed and executed by a digitally enabled, diverse pool of practitioners worldwide. There will always be a need for some on-site activity. However, the ability to use virtual reality to test different design and construction scenarios, create digital twins to capture and monitor progress, deploy modular construction for project components, and use virtual project-management tools for team discussions will limit the need to relocate large teams across jobsites.

Taken together, the synergies across digitization, diversification, and decentralization are accelerating the industry toward a new kind of workforce. Future generations will see construction careers as fast-paced, high-tech, gender-neutral, lucrative, and worthy of the world’s best talent—wherever it is found.



Prakash Parbhoo
Partner, Johannesburg
McKinsey & Company

Our experience finds recurring patterns in the characteristics, mind-sets, and behaviors of large capital-project teams and frontline laborers that predict the project’s success. Three critical capabilities stand out for the workforce of the future. And project teams can be selected and hired for all three of these characteristics today.

Collaborate through the good and bad. The most successful teams take a collaborative approach to resolving issues at all levels and between all stakeholders. They bring cross-functional stakeholders together to resolve issues and foster an environment in which all parties help each other do their best work. Rather than engage in endless blame games, they agree to evaluate problems objectively, as a team, and to apply preset rules detailing accountability for underperformance. It’s not just about collaboration in good times—the great teams distinguish themselves by collaborating even more closely when projects face challenges.

Solve problems in real time using data. The most efficient teams start by using common wisdom, such as by noting patterns, to predict where issues may arise—but they use data to focus their problem-solving efforts. For example, one team building a greenfield mine used advanced analytics techniques to provide early warning if tasks were at risk of delay. The data scientist and data-science translator are increasingly important in helping project teams by bringing new insights grounded in the constraints and complexities of the project environment.

Embrace new technologies. Engineering and construction are working through their own digital disruptions. While the long-term implications of this shift are still unknown, it is clear that a workforce able to adapt and embrace new technologies is essential. One team of unskilled frontline laborers improved their productivity by more than 100 percent with the aid of a smartphone app. Other efforts involve getting engineers comfortable coengineering with an AI assistant. Regardless of approach, being able to embrace new technologies in day-to-day work is essential for the future workforce.

Voices highlights a range of perspectives by infrastructure and capital project leaders from across geographies and value chains. McKinsey & Company does not endorse the organizations who contribute to Voices or their views. 


  1. Mike Juang, “How drone photography is carving a niche in construction,” CNBC, July 8, 2018, cnbc.com.
  2. Australian infrastructure audit 2019: an assessment of Australia’s future infrastructure needs, Infrastructure Australia, June 2019, infrastructureaustralia.gov.au.
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